“Whale fur balls.”
Nope. They’re neither of those.
“Surf balls” or “beach balls” come a little closer as an accurate name. You’ve likely found one on the beach: a prickly, fibrous sphere sitting in the wrack line or tumbling along the sand or blown into the edge of the foredune. They’re light-weight, especially when dry, and they range from that of golf-ball size to basket-ball size (or even larger); rarely they’re cylindrical instead of spherical.
Called by many local names, surf balls are found on beaches world-wide. On the Gulf Coast, they’re called “hurricane balls” because big ones sometimes appear after a hurricane.
Not limited to the sea, such spheres even show up on the bottoms or shores of fresh-water lakes. Often made of finer material, such “lake balls” might be only a couple of centimeters across.
The bulk of surf ball fabric is some sort of fibrous plant material—often the roots of grasses along the shore. Additionally, strands of sea grass or sea weeds, or other land plant parts, such as twigs and leaf skeletons, get worked in. Bits of animals or animal parts can get entangled, too -- empty clusters of squid eggs or pieces of tubeworm skeletons, for example.
Even fishing line and other plastic can get wrapped up on the mix, although fishing line is rarely the start of a surf ball.
European beach grass grows along most of the sandy shores of the Pacific Northwest. European beach grass has extremely long, very slender, remarkably tough roots. European beach grass roots sport minute, angled prickles along their length -- prickles that are perfect for snagging other fibers. Although surf balls form in places without European beach grass, it seems to me these roots are especially well-suited for forming them.
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How do they form?
Apparently by waves.
In winter (or during hurricanes or other storms), big waves expend a lot of force on the shoreline, usually eroding it -- and tearing out plant roots living in harm’s way.
Beach grass, and beach grass roots, that had been growing along the foredune at sea’s edge all summer, may be torn up by the big waves releasing winter storm energy.
The size of the waves and the steepness and hardness of the shore affects the way the wave breaks. Waves can slosh and surge; waves can collapse and spill; waves can curl and plunge. Waves with the right dynamics can dig material off the beach face and roll it around.
So, the energy from big winter storm waves can erode the shore, exposing roots of shoreline plants, and other fibers, then roll those fibers into a tight ball, incorporating whatever else gets entangled in the process.
Surf and wind then push the balls onshore for us to find and marvel over.